Zarif Nazar - Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
U.S. Special Envoy for Afghan Peace and Reconciliation
DOHA -- U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has described the latest round of U.S.-Taliban peace talks as the "most productive" ever, telling RFE/RL that "a lot of progress" has been made.
Khalilzad made the remarks in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on July 7 at the conclusion of the first day of an intra-Afghan dialogue in Qatar.
The two-day intra-Afghan dialogue marks the first time Afghan government officials have met for face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives -- although the Kabul officials traveled to the Doha gathering in a personal rather than official capacity.
The Taliban previously refused to meet directly with any members of Afghanistan's government, calling them "Western puppets."
But the Taliban agreed to meet with individuals in the Afghan government who are part of an intra-Afghan delegation that also includes opposition politicians, women, and members of Afghan nongovernmental organizations.
Khalilzad told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan after the conclusion of the July 7 meeting that U.S. and Taliban negotiators were now closer to reaching an agreement on four key issues.
Those issues include the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, a permanent cease-fire, a Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for attacks in other countries, and an intra-Afghan dialogue that leads to a political settlement.
The July 7-8 intra-Afghan dialogue, organized by Qatar and Germany, is seen as an icebreaker that could lead to direct negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders.
The latest round of U.S.-Taliban talks began on July 1 and these discussions have been paused while the intra-Afghan dialogue gets under way.
U.S.-Taliban negotiations are scheduled to resume on July 9 without any Afghan government representatives.
'Progress On Cease-Fire Deal'
The Taliban has said it is "happy with the progress."
Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that both sides agreed that "in a short time" there would be direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
He said a political settlement required a deal that satisfied both the Afghan government and the Taliban.
"The past 40 years of war in Afghanistan has shown that attempts by groups to force their ideas on others only result in further conflict," Khalilzad said.
Khalilzad said U.S. and Taliban negotiators have also made progress on a cease-fire deal and discussed the conditions in which foreign forces will be reduced and eventually withdrawn from the country.
U.S. President Donald Trump recently described Afghanistan as a "lab for terrorists," saying on July 1 that, if the United States withdraws its military forces from the country, he would still leave a "very strong intelligence" presence behind.
Khalilzad said that issue had been discussed with the Taliban but added that he could not comment further.
The veteran U.S. diplomat has also been touring the region in an attempt to gain support for the peace process in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad said the policy of Pakistan, which Kabul and Washington have long accused of backing the Taliban, has changed "little-by-little in a positive direction."
Pakistan has helped facilitate peace talks between Washington and the Taliban.
Khalilzad conceded there is a danger that escalating tensions between the United States and Iran could impact the Afghan peace process.
"We have told Iran that we don’t want the issues we have with them to have a negative impact on peace in Afghanistan," Khalilzad said. "But the threat of this remains."